Cutting cycling funding is economic non-sense

Jan Garrard, Senior Lecturer, School of Health & Social Development at Deakin University
Speaks @ The Conversation

In the current climate of economic uncertainty and fiscal restraint, governments are quick to reassure us that they are making every effort to “do more with less”. Providing mobility for citizens in Australia’s rapidly growing cities is a key public policy goal. When faced with alternative transport options, sensible governments will invest in measures that achieve maximum benefits for the least cost, right? Well, um, maybe.

In fact, governments of all persuasions in Australia have been slow to align transport policies with comprehensive assessments of the benefits and costs of alternative transport modes. A recent example of this mismatch is the Victorian Government’s decision to stop funding the VicRoads Bicycle Program. Funding for the program (which averaged $15 million a year over the last three years) has effectively been abolished.

A recent review of 16 economic valuations of transport infrastructure or policies reported a median benefit-cost ratio (BCR) of five for walking and cycling projects (that is, you get five dollars in benefits for every dollar spent). Based on this finding, reducing funding for bicycle infrastructure in Victoria from $15 million to zero means that the Victorian Government is, in all likelihood, foregoing an estimated $75 million in benefits.

To add insult to economic injury, the government plans to provide further subsidies for motor vehicle travel. In contrast to the favourable BCRs for bicycle infrastructure, many road construction projects struggle to break even. For some projects, the costs outweigh the benefits. Sir Rod Eddington’s 2008 report ‘Investing in Transport’, included an assessment of the economic benefits and costs of a proposed East-West road tunnel across inner Melbourne. The BCR for the road tunnel, which is expected to cost several billion dollars, was less than 0.7; that is, a net cost. Furthermore, the Victorian Government is now asking the Australian public (via Infrastructure Australia) for $30 million to develop a plan to construct this financial black hole.

The reasons for the large disparities in BCRs for bicycle infrastructure compared with road infrastructure are not difficult to unpack. In transport terms, it is hard to beat the efficiency of moving people by bicycle. A single-occupant car requires 20 times more space than a cyclist (see this image), and freeways cost about a hundred times more to construct (per km) than off-road bicycle paths.

Cycling is usually a faster mode of transport than car travel for trips up to about 5km in urban areas. For longer trips the travel time differences are small. In the morning peak (7.30 to 9.00 am) in Melbourne, average travel speeds in 2009/10 were 22.2km/h on inner Melbourne (approximately 10 km radius from CBD) undivided arterial roads, and 20.2km/h on arterial roads with trams. For a typical cycling speed of 20km/h, the average cycling trip to work (7.7 km) would take about 2 minutes (on undivided arterial roads) to 18 seconds (on arterial roads with trams) longer by bicycle than by car.

Read the full article at The Conversation here


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